Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller. Not recommended.

Armed with a master's degree in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University, Lee Miller tries to combine history with the arts of the novelist and dramatist. Not successfully, as she might say in one of her numerous misplaced sentence fragments.

As the subtitle implies, Roanoke focuses less on the mystery of the lost colonists than on Miller's convoluted approach to solving it. She takes the reader on so many voyages, to so many places with so many peoples, and through so many plots and treacheries, none in chronological order, so that within just a few pages that reader feels as lost as the colonists themselves.

Miller tries to use the techniques of the novelist and dramatist to heighten the effect, including a breathless tense that implies the present: "In one of the last glimpses we have of them, it [what?] has already begun: colonist George Howe has been found dead, floating face down among the reeds along the shore." This, along with the use of the present tense elsewhere, makes this event sound ominous indeed, until later it is revealed who killed him, how, and why. While this information boded ill for the colony, it was not mysterious in the way Lee hints. Howe's death plays a small role in the Miller's solution of the "crime," but it is for the most part a minor red herring.

The author plays up innumerable events and questions as though the revelation of identities and machinations will be shocking to the reader, much in the manner of the present-day tabloid. One of these questions is, "Who are the Mandoag?" This point, raised continually as other nations refer to them ambiguously, mysteriously, and with fear, seemingly becomes the crux of the mystery and the fate of the colonists. After such a buildup, the unveiling has no dramatic impact and little interest. Even worse, Miller's case for their identity is speculative, weak, and inconclusive.

This describes much of Miller's approach. She frequently comes to conclusions through process of elimination and then finds supporting evidence. Once she has determined the religious affiliation of the colonists, then their actions, and the mother country's lack of interest in them, make sense. Such an argument is weak and easily undercut. Miller does so herself when she says that England had become so overpopulated that she didn't want any colonists back, whatever their affiliation may have been.

Miller's speculations do not always seem logical. She writes, "And why would they [the colonists] assume that a strange fruit, growing in an unfamiliar land, is fit to eat? In fact, we would expect them to err on the side of caution." On the contrary, I might expect people who have been at sea for months, living on dry rations, to be so hungry for fresh fruits of the earth that caution might not occur to them in the excitement of the moment, that they might eat any fruit that appeared fleshy and edible. Miller does not speculate as to what the fruit might have been, but concludes that the colonists must have been told by a treacherous individual that it was safe to eat. I would question why an individual would take the risk of betraying such a large number of people in whose company he is stuck and why they would not punish him. The answer could be that they were utterly dependent on his him to get them to Roanoke and/or Chesapeake Bay. Still, the question of this particular betrayal is not as clear as Miller portrays; this is typical of her thought process throughout.

Her writing style and habit of jumping around erratically in time and space is frustrating and tiresome for a reader who is not familiar with the facts of the Roanoke voyages. She tries to use sentence fragments for dramatic effect, but has no idea how to do so. Most of these fall flat. For example, "White pushes ahead, the sailors following. Out of their element."  Since this fragment is not followed up with something that happens because White and the sailors are "out of their element," it is pointless and adds nothing. Numerous fragments like these are distracting and detract from the narrative. A good writer knows to use such a device sparingly, but Miller indulges in it relentlessly.

By the end of the book, I knew a little more about Elizabethan England, John White, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the nations of the Roanoke area than I did before, although I have qualms about the reliability of Miller's interpretations of her sources. Her ultimate conclusion about the fate of the colonists seems little different from that of other historians, although she probably presents the case differently. I recommend reading a more straightforward history of Roanoke colony before tackling this book and being prepared for more drama, badly done, than history.

Monday, 20 November 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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